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July 25, 2020

N for No and Numb – Reflection #6

I work around the world mainly in human service organisations (and now in covid online world!) with people of all ages,  in cities, in the bush, the desert and in villages. Caregivers and support workers are the day in day out frontline heart workers, often working in very tough conditions, low paid, and under-supported. These are the people who hold the key to making life bearable, wonderful or miserable for the person reliant on support. One of my roles is to get a sense of the conditions that hold misery, mediocrity and mindlessness in place. I have noticed two barriers in particular that are ubiquitous. 

One barrier is the “no” reflex. This is when a person has a desire or situation that doesn’t quite fit into the routine of “service world”. I want to eat when I am hungry. No – that’s not dinner time. I want my shower in the morning, not at 5pm. Sorry that’s when the staff are here. I don’t like my house-mate, I want to live somewhere else. Sorry there is nowhere else. I want to go to town. No, there is no-one to drive you. I’m lonely. Well get better at making friends with people here. The immediate knee jerk “no” reflex kicks in. “This is not what we do here.” The second barrier is the “numbness” factor. This is when you disconnect from feeling what it’s like on the receiving end of service world. Let’s flip it. Would you or I like being told, You can’t choose your home, and who lives with you, or having no say in who assists you with your intimate care in the bathroom, or to be waiting waiting waiting for someone or something to arrive to take you somewhere or make something happen? 

What happens when assistance and care is designed for the needs of the organisation and the routines of staff? The person is trapped in a small world, with lack of options and opportunities, bounded by the actual or invisible walls of “service land”.  Research shows that a person who chooses where and with whom she lives, is 52 times more likely to have other personally defined life priorities met, such as real friends, pursuing interests and dreams, choosing the services that match her preferences, have her privacy respected etc. One of the tasks of my book, Applying Deep Democracy in Human Services, is to show how you can shift the knee jerk “no” into a deep desire to support one’s own and each other’s freedom, options and decisions. How to move from numbness to a genuine inner curiosity and feeling for who the other person is and wants to become. A discovery process. This I call the power of love-based curiosity. In the capacity building framework Transform and Blossom this is JoinU competence. 

In a group home or elder care facility, there are so many things people encounter every day, that they don’t particularly want, didn’t ask for, and fight against. Unintentional harm happens when for the best reasons, you say no! in principle, and go numb to the inner desires of another human being. These are the very desires that are so basic to our own. The N+N factor shields us from feeling the reality that this is a person like you and me, living in conditions we perpetuate for them, but would not want to endure ourselves. And so we build a whole world, service land, to keep us distant, in the name of care and support. Service land is expensive, numbing and exhausting.

Why and how did we get here, and how to address it? This is what my book Applying Deep Democracy in Human Services is about, in a framework I call deep power:  capabilities that every person can awaken from the inside out.

Deep Democracy is a term first coined by Arnold Mindell in the 1980s. We all know what democracy means – one voice, one vote, and freedom of public discourse. But democracy doesn’t seem to reduce conflict in our world. And there are many who don’t make it to the public discourse because they are invisible. Deep democracy is an inclusive, welcoming attitude to fresh and frank interaction between all stakeholders and views, in co-creating new solutions together. Deep democracy includes human rights and political rights, and also the right to dream; deep democracy includes the right to belong on this planet and feel at home in yourself, connected with others and your environment; to be a citizen beyond passport.

I discovered deep democracy while living and working in South Africa. I was in a leadership role in an organisation near Cape Town, in a farming area, providing home, practical work and a community network to adults with various disabilities. Nelson Mandela had just come out of 27 years in prison. The country was in the midst of an electrifying historic moment, dismantling apartheid, rebuilding society as a rainbow nation, and at the same time confronting the atrocities of the past, as came out in anguished encounters between loved ones of victims, and perpetrators in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Our community was also in the process of turning inside out, realising that a few can no longer be the sole decision makers for the many. The conflicts among us as staff about how to go forward, were intense around issues of power sharing to do with race, able-ism, economic fairness. I lacked the tools to facilitate these intense conflicts, and when looking for an approach that allowed for the intensity of emotion to come out and be processed, rather suppressing it. 

That is when a friend gave me a book by Arnold Mindell, Leader as Martial Artist. And I found words for so many things I was experiencing. We were currently grappling with an incident of sexual abuse between peers reliant on our support. The different factions siding with one or viewpoint, were splitting us apart. Encouraged by my reading to try to facilitate interaction between the different sides of our community tension, I worked with my close colleagues to hold an open forum. This event led to our own truth and reconciliation process, from which emerged hidden leaders and elders. That is how I learned that the solutions really are in the hands, hearts and minds of the people. 

About a billion people – one eighth of our human population is reliant on support services at one time in their life, and for many that reliance is life long. Applying Deep Democracy in Human Services provides many examples from diverse cultures about working with what is, and transforming from where you are. For an organisation, deep democracy might mean, holding open forums where the yes and the no roles on different sides of an issue can come forward and interact, represented by anyone, and safeguarding those more vulnerable from scapegoating. Food for example, is a common battle ground in residential care homes and services. What to eat, when to eat it, how much to eat, what not to eat, and who is watching, measuring and judging. 

In one organisation the tensions around food rules and breaking rules became so intense, that we decided to hold an Open Forum for some fresh and frank exchange. During the discussion, one woman in her thirties, Mabel, said: I want to be able to eat a snack in the afternoon”. Next to her sat Jill, her support worker, who immediately turned to her and said: “But Mabel, you would not have an appetite for dinner, and anyway, you know you are on a diet to try to lose weight”. Mabel’s head bowed, embarrassed. Here it was. That ubiquitous “No”. I thought to myself, If this is how you relate to this person while everyone here is present and watching, how do you talk with her when you are alone, and no-one is watching? Using my facilitator rank I said, “Ouch. If I were in your shoes Mabel, I might feel a little embarrassed hearing that in front of everyone here, even though I’m sure Jill meant well”. Mabel looked up, nodded and smiled. I asked the room, “Does any one else have a perspective?” Mabel’s peer, Jack got up and said, “I think you should be able to have a snack if you want it”. The forum continued to bring out many other voices. The point is, that creating the setting for diversity, the binary  tension is less able to hold up. Multiple perspectives and ideas bring to the surface fresh solutions.  

For an individual, deep democracy might mean the freedom to be angry, to say no to this or that and having that taken seriously. For another making noises, or disturbing in some other way, it might mean having your staff join you and feel what its like, and from that spot find the way through together, instead of being shut down and told to be quiet and sit still,  For a leader deep democracy might mean having the awareness to breathe and do a quick inner work, to be able to interact more fruitfully with the accusation on the spot, or shortly after.  

If the support worker does not feel alive in their own skin, or feel she has agency in her own life, it’s not so easy to create conditions for another human being to shine and thrive. If you don’t know it from the inside, if you don’t have role models to show you, and you’ve never seen it, you have only your own personal history and patterning to fall back on. 

So how to turn this around? This is the challenge that Transform and Blossom engages with.

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